Since same-sex marriage became law in Germany last October, the country’s Catholic bishops have struggled to find a way to deal with a situation where the legal definition of marriage – and that supported by public opinion – cannot be reconciled with the Catholic understanding of marriage.

Germany is of course far from being the only country where same-sex marriage has posed a challenge to the Church. But the German Church is particularly important, not only because of its numbers – although Mass attendance is low and there are few priestly vocations – but also because its €6 billion annual income from the state-administered church tax gives it serious financial clout internationally.

So there are few figures more powerful in the Catholic world than Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops’ conference (DBK), and a member of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinal Advisers. What Cardinal Marx says matters, and this is why last week’s interview with Bavarian state radio to mark his 10th anniversary in Munich caused such waves when he was asked about the possibility of the Church blessing same-sex couples.

At first it was reported that Marx had spoken positively about blessings – though in individual cases, and ruling out any possibility of the worldwide Church changing its view. Since the interview has gained international attention, the DBK has argued that Marx was mistranslated, and has given the following translation of the key passage: “There are no general solutions and I think that [blessing same-sex couples in church] would not be right, because we are talking about pastoral care for individual cases, and that applies to other areas as well, which we cannot regulate, where we have no sets of rules.”

It is true that this passage does not give a sign of approval to formal blessings. But there were other signals given out in the interview. Marx also stated: “We must also encourage priests and pastors to give people a Zuspruch in specific situations. I don’t really see any problems.”

Marx was being very precise in his language. He did not use the word Segnung, which would imply a formal liturgical blessing. The word Zuspruch might signify a formal blessing, but has a broader usage, and more often means an informal word of encouragement, such as a football coach might give to his players.

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